MILWAUKEE — Francisco Liriano hasn’t reprised 2006, hasn’t rediscovered the 92-mph slider that could clip the outside corner before clipping a righthanded hitter’s big toe. In a way, he’s become even more impressive in 2013 than he was as a carefree Twins rookie with unhittable stuff.
Wednesday night at Miller Park, Liriano will take the mound as the most surprising player on baseball’s most surprising team, eight months after fearing that his once-meteoric and more often puzzling career had ended.
“Yeah, I did worry,” he said. “I thought nobody was going to sign me, because that happened the night before I was going to get my physical done.”
Before Christmas, Liriano planned to sign with the Pittsburgh Pirates. The lefthander says he was horsing around with his kids, banging into a door to scare them at his home in the Dominican Republic, when he hurt his right arm.
When he discovered his arm was broken, he worried that negotiations were dead. The Pirates, he said, called four days later and restructured the contract, lessening the guaranteed money, and Liriano gratefully signed.
Eight months later, Liriano is the ace of the Pirates and of the unofficial All-Star team of former Twins scattered around the big leagues. He’s bringing a record of 15-6 and an ERA of 2.57 into the latest start of a season that would make him a Cy Young Award contender if he didn’t pitch in the same league as Dodgers star Clayton Kershaw.
“We’re having a blast right now,” Liriano said.
Liriano might be the key to what will be the Pirates’ first winning season since 1992, and the Pirates take obvious pride in having coaxed him toward the form that made him the most dominant pitcher in the majors for three months in 2006.
Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said a mechanical adjustment smoothed out Liriano’s delivery, and that learning to pitch ahead in the count has made his slider and changeup devastating.
Pirates pitching coach Ray Searage went into more detail. He’s encouraged Liriano to “stay on his back side longer,” meaning keep his weight on his left foot longer, to avoid rushing his delivery. Tuesday in the Pirates clubhouse, Searage mimicked Liriano’s delivery, saying the pitcher had to learn to pull his hands toward the left side of his chest, “Toward the big ‘P’ on the jersey,” Searage said. “This way he’s nice and smooth on his stride out to home plate, and he can do whatever he wants with the ball.”
Of course, Liriano heard similar advice from the Twins and White Sox. He admits the broken arm gave him more time to think about pitching. He missed the first month of the season but used the down time to revamp his deliver and channel his desperation.
“I was frustrated, being home, being hurt again,” he said. “I wasn’t doing much at all. I couldn’t do much, with my broken arm. But everything happens for a reason. You’ve got to thank God for everything that happens in your life, and move forward and find a way to get better.”
“The man made a commitment to improving himself, an honest self-evaluation over the winter,” Hurdle said. “Then he got handed some more adversity with the injury, which gave him more time to prepare.”
Why couldn’t he pitch this well with the Twins?
“To be honest, in 2011, I was hurting,” Liriano said. “My shoulder was bothering me the whole year. Last year [with the Twins and White Sox], I was walking guys, not throwing strikes, trying to do too much.”
And now? “I think most of it is location,” he said. “I’m throwing strikes, getting ahead.”
With the Twins in recent years, Liriano often pitched well for four or five innings, but when he encountered trouble, he would overthrow, lose his balance and compound his woes.
“Every time I’d get guys on base, I was trying to do too much,” he said. “I would get too aggressive. I would get mad … and I would overthrow, and not think about locating my pitches. Now, when I get guys on base, I try to do the same thing I was doing before, just locate my pitches.”
Hurdle raves about those pitches, the “dynamite slider, that parachute changeup, the good two-seam fastball, the four-seam fastball.”
Those pitches and Liriano’s newfound ability to control them have made him the most unlikely ace on baseball’s most unlikely contender. He hasn’t posted an ERA lower than 5.09 since 2010. He’s won a career-high 15 games and is trying to become the first Pirates lefty to win more than 15 in a season since 1991. When his starts have followed a Pirates loss, he’s 8-2 with a 1.26 ERA.
Always quiet and polite, Liriano looks embarrassed when called an “ace.”
“No, no, I don’t consider myself an ace,” he said. “But I like to go out there and know the guys can count on me. I’m having a good time right now.”
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org